The Library Basement
Reading under ground

Tag scripture

How do you solve a problem like Eve?

If you listen to NPR or read Christian-themed blogs at all, you've probably heard about the Morning Edition story about Evangelicals questioning the existence of Adam and Eve. Personally I think the implications of the article are a bit overblown. Citing two examples of academic Evangelicals questioning the historical reality of the Adam and Eve story should not be extrapolated into a trend within Evangelicalism in general. Still this article has got some useful discussions started on the themes of science and Bible interpretation.

The tension between science and Adam and Eve is generally solved by interpreting the creation story allegorically. This is in line with early Christian interpreters like Origen. I also think a valid argument for this interpretation can be made from the text itself. However, I see a problem with an allegorical approach where New Testament authors argue from the Adam and Eve story. For example, Paul in 1 Timothy 2:

I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. (NIV)

[][]Obviously this passage is already difficult to interpret. But it seems to me that Paul's argument does not make sense if we assume that he understood the Adam and Eve story metaphorically. If Adam and Eve are symbolic, then neither men nor women were formed first. Likewise it cannot be said that woman was deceived but not man if there were no particular first woman and man. This line of reasoning only makes sense when arguing from a historical understanding of the story, and I believe that is how Paul understood the text of Genesis.

Please respond if you see a way that Paul's argument makes sense under the assumption of an allegorical Adam and Eve. If I am right, there is an important implication: by trying to argue literally from an allegorical text, Paul's argument becomes invalid (since in an allegorical reading his premises are no longer true). This in turn calls into question the inerrancy of Paul's writing.

Accommodating science with an allegorical interpretation of Adam and Eve can put pressure on other Evangelical values. I could be making a mountain out of a mole hill, but I am now curious if anyone has researched the topic of the interpretation of Genesis 2-3 in the New Testament. I wonder if there are any clear examples where the NT author employs a metaphorical understanding of Adam and Eve. Let me know what you find.


Open letter to Southern Baptists

Dear Southern Baptists,

Your representatives at the Southern Baptist Convention in 2011 made some rather hasty resolutions regarding the 2011 revision of the NIV. However I fear that these leaders are somewhat confused about language and semantics and have muddled the situation for the larger Southern Baptist movement.

The SBC messengers claim that the updated version "alters the meaning of hundreds of verses, most significantly by erasing gender-specific details which appear in the original language." However, it was the policy of the NIV translators to make changes only where there were no gender-specific details - that is when the source text was using generic third-person pronouns.

By convention both the Hebrew and Greek languages defaulted to masculine pronouns when such a generic (non-gender-specific) pronoun was needed. This was also the case with English, so our translations of the Bible followed this convention: using "he" when the pronoun could represent a man or a woman. For example, Romans 8:9b:

And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.

However, the substitution of "they" for "he" as a generic pronoun is now part of common spoken English. The new form has the exact same meaning as the traditional masculine generic singular, and therefore its use in modern English translation is not inaccurate but instead is up-to-date vernacular. You will likely notice yourself using this construction in your own speech if you pay attention. You may even hear your pastor use "they" as a singular generic pronoun in a sermon.

This is a change in form, not a change in meaning. The NIV 2011 translation committee has not produced an inaccurate translation nor made mock of the inspired nature of the scriptures. They merely endeavored to update the NIV to keep abreast of changes in the English language. Therefore the NIV 2011 is not to be shunned because of the use of these so-called "gender-neutral" idioms.

The good news for you Southern Baptists is that you are a rather free-wheeling bunch of protestants. Therefore you can reject this resolution of your Convention on the grounds that it is based on false information. You are free to buy and read and memorize the NIV 2011 whether or not LifeWay carries it. And you can write your pastor a letter of protest when he bashes this new revision from the pulpit. I commend all these actions (and more) to you, as I also commend to your use the 2011 revision of the NIV.

Kind Regards,

Nathan Smith

Natural Language Processing with Python

I was browsing through a local bookshop's computer section recently and saw a title which instantly grabbed my attention: Natural Language Processing with Python. It was a bit more expensive than I wanted to pay at that moment, but I thought I may save up.

As it happily turns out, the entire book is available online under a Creative Commons license (BY-NC-ND). This is the sort of thing which makes me really happy. I am going to be checking it out, and if it is useful enough, I may buy to paper copy to thank the authors and O'Reilly for publishing such a great book.

The book is focused mostly on the Natural Language Tool Kit (nltk) Python module, which is available under an Apache license. I had never used it before, but it looks fairly capable. I must admit I was somewhat surprised that Google finds relatively few pertinent results when searching for "nltk new testament greek" or "nltk biblical studies." The library seems quite suited to the field, so I am surprised it is not more popular among Bible scholars. If nltk is any good, I intend to change that.

Is ignorance an excuse?

Jonah has got to be among the worst Bible stories for children, but it is one of the most ubiquitous, right up there with Noah's ark. One of my son's Bible story books concludes the story with an outright lie: "The people of Nineveh worshiped God and Jonah was happy." Jonah was actually very angry and bitter at the conclusion of the story. But the story is so compelling for children's publishers that they whitewash or simply omit the final chapter.

The final chapter does end on a somewhat uplifting note, because God gets the last word. Jonah is sulking about Nineveh not being destroyed (and the loss of his shade plant), but God replies:

“You were upset about this little plant . . . Should I not be even more concerned about Nineveh, this enormous city? There are more than one hundred twenty thousand people in it who do not know right from wrong, as well as many animals!” \~ NET

The phrase "who do not know right from wrong" is a translation of a Hebrew idiom which is "who do not know their left hand from their right." The implication of interpreting the idiom in this way is that the people of the city were morally ignorant (lacking any special revelation) and therefore not subject to punishment.

However in Romans Paul presents an indictment for those who do not know their left hands from their right:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness, because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse. \~ NET

If I understand these passages correctly, my question for the systematic theologian is as follows: does ignorance of special revelation qualify as an excuse from divine judgement? Perhaps I am misinterpreting one of these passages or have presented a false comparison. Suggestions are welcome.

Biblical violence in the mirror

John Hobbins writes one of my favorite blogs, Ancient Hebrew Poetry. He has a recent post entitled "War and Peace in the Bible" which serves as an anchor to his thoughts and writings on the subject of violence in the Hebrew Bible. I'll quote a rather thought-provoking segment:

In place of the vision of a millennium and a new heavens and a new earth found in texts like Isaiah 65-66 and Revelation 20-22, our age has been dominated by visions of secular philosophers. As a result no period of history has been darker and more blood-soaked than ours. . . . If that is the reality, if our own governments act and fail to act on the flimsiest of grounds, it is at least the case that the blood-soaked pages of the Bible may turn out to be a mirror of our own contradictions.

Perhaps a mirror is not the best description. It could be that the violence of the modern era outstrips that of the Bible. John continues with ten theses on violence in the Bible, four of which are backed by other posts. I commend them to your reading.